Where the Light Fell: An Interview with Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey talks about his new memoir, "Where the Light Fell." He shares his views of science, church life, and offers hope for Christians who are deconstructing.
Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash
For many years, author Philip Yancey has been an important influence on the ethos of Christian culture. As the author of 25 books and former editor-at-large for Christianity Today, his work spans a wide breadth of topics and has provided a gracious and perceptive voice on what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
In his latest book, a memoir, Where the Light Fell, Yancey shares with his readers vulnerable, often painful stories, of his years growing up in a religiously fundamentalist home and church in Georgia. Rife with racism, legalism, and attitudes of anti-science, his experiences living in the South during the civil-rights movement demonstrate the power of grace and healing that only Christ can bring to the broken places in our lives.
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Philip more about his life as a boy growing up in the South. He touches upon his views of science, church life, and offers hope for Christians who are deconstructing.
Kendra: I recently read your memoir, Where the Light Fell. A good portion of the book is dedicated to your early childhood, adolescence, and teenage years. Many of those years are riddled with adversity and hardship, and yet it seems you find moments of grace in the midst of those trials. What were some of those portals of grace that showed up in your life?
Philip: “Portals of grace”—I like that! The title of my memoir comes from a phrase by St. Augustine, who said he could not look at the sun directly but looked on where the light fell until he could follow those rays back up to the sun. I, too, could not look at the sun directly—I had been scorched by a strict religious environment that misrepresented God as a kind of bully, enforcing rules of behavior with a scowl. I tell of three places where the light fell for me: the beauties of nature, classical music, and romantic love.
As I experienced the softer side of God, especially in what I learned from Jesus, I wanted at last to know the One responsible for so much goodness. G. K. Chesterton used to say, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he feels a deep sense of gratitude and has no one to thank.” That’s the condition in which I found myself…until God found me.
Kendra: You write about those early years at home, “Church defines my life. Our family attends services every Sunday morning and evening and also on Wednesday nights for prayer meeting. Plus, I’m expected to show up for Vacation Bible School, youth activities, ‘revivals’ and whenever else the doors open. The church tells me what to believe, whom to trust and distrust, and how to behave.” How did these rules impact you and your growing faith in Christ as a young person?
Philip: Like many young people, I was struck by the hypocrisy in the church, and in myself. Faith for me was a learned behavior. I learned how to pray, give convincing “testimonies,” and keep the rules. Sometimes that was a genuine response; often it was not. After a while, I could no longer tell the difference between what was fake and what was real. Christians, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, are constantly tempted to keep a set of external rules that demonstrate their devotion, whereas Jesus presents the much harder standard of loving God and neighbor—open-ended responses that are hard to quantify.
I’ve written two dozen books, and as the memoir shows, all of them are my attempts to revisit the words I learned as a child and locate the authentic kernel of truth. If Jesus is not the Sunday School version, what is he, really? Hence, The Jesus I Never Knew. If prayer does not follow a predictable vending-machine pattern, does it make any difference at all? And What’s So Amazing About Grace?—many of my books circle back to the questions I wrestled with while “in recovery” from a church that got some things right and some things badly wrong.
Kendra: Many people with a similar background have deconstructed their beliefs and left Christianity entirely. How is it that you emerged into adulthood with your faith intact?
Philip: I can’t take credit for that. God granted me a decisive conversion experience that changed everything, literally overnight. I’ve always hesitated to give the details, which I now tell in the memoir, because God meets us in different ways, and I’m not setting out a model for others. I also had the example of an older brother who not only deconstructed but demolished his belief. He made many self-destructive choices in the process. I now see that he amputated whatever part of his past he didn’t like, whereas I tried to stitch together the mistakes and “grace notes” into some kind of pattern.
I like the progression Richard Rohr describes as Order/Disorder/Reorder. I grew up in a highly ordered, fundamentalist environment. I suspended faith for a time, the disorder phase. In my twenties, I was blessed to find a father figure in Dr. Paul Brand. (My father died when I was a baby, the victim of a failed attempt at faith healing.) Dr. Brand was a wise and saintly doctor/scientist with whom I collaborated on three books, especially Fearfully and Wonderfully. That offered me a cocoon period when my own faith could take shape—reorder—while I wrote with integrity about his. As I put words to his faith, he imparted faith to my words.
Kendra: You became interested in science in high school, but your mother warned you about your teachers, saying, “Be careful…they’ll tell you stuff about evolution and dinosaurs that contradict the Bible”(p. 80). Can you tell me more about how science was viewed in your home and within your church? How did these attitudes influence your view of science at that time? How did your views shift when you went to work in a laboratory at the CDC?
Philip: Ever since Galileo and, later, Darwin, science and faith have had an uneasy relationship. In my high school days, I wanted to be an entomologist, studying insects. I won a summer fellowship at the CDC, where I worked with scientists committed to exploring the world through a scientific lens. Oddly enough, they seemed to have more integrity than the church folks who feared science as a great threat to faith. Not until I worked with Dr. Brand did I find a guide who looked at science and faith as compatible.
I tell the story of how on my first day at the CDC, when I was assigned to work with a Ph.D. in biochemistry who happened to be a Black man, I was forced to confront the fact that my fundamentalist church had lied to me about race. And if they were wrong about race, what about Jesus and the Bible? Churches need to be very careful when they speak dogmatically. By scaring kids away from science, they set them up for a rude awakening. Many go away to universities and learn incontestable facts about an old universe and the fossil record and, likewise, begin to doubt everything in the faith they have been taught.
Science can lead to scientism, a kind of reductionism that takes everything apart. Faith addresses the bigger questions of meaning, putting things together. We need both approaches.
Kendra: Young people who live in homes and attend churches that are more conservative or fundamentalist often experience cognitive dissonance when they encounter evidence for an old earth or evolution. Having experienced this yourself, what words of encouragement or advice could you give to people who are experiencing this kind of dissonance?
Philip: Visit the BioLogos website! Promise, I’m not paid to say that. One of the greatest scientists of our time, Dr. Francis Collins, founded BioLogos precisely to answer that question. Contributors confront the dissonance head-on, and of course, not all agree on the answers. But I find it most refreshing to learn that very bright scientists are aware of the issues and discuss them openly.
An honest scientist must admit that some questions lie beyond the realm of science. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is that something so finely tuned and beautiful? How should humans behave? Can we trust reason or “truth” if our brains are simply the result of random collisions of molecules and atoms? Science can lead to scientism, a kind of reductionism that takes everything apart. Faith addresses the bigger questions of meaning, putting things together. We need both approaches.
Kendra: As a young girl, I found a lot of comfort being out in the woods. It offered me a place of beauty and quiet to process the things I was going through in school, and with my family and friends. When I came upon the following section in your book, it resonated with me. You wrote, “I find solace in the woods. When I feel harassed at school, or when tension mounts inside the trailer, I head into the forest, with Mother’s cry– ‘How many times do I have to tell you not to slam the door!’– fading away. Unlike my family, the wilderness cannot talk back. When I leave the cramped trailer and its noisy surroundings, I cross the threshold into another, calmer world, one that asks of me nothing but attention.” You go on to describe some of that “calmer world” and how you captured what you saw with your Kodak camera. Now, as an adult, you’re an avid mountain climber. What are some of your favorite parts about God’s creation, and how did that influence your love of science?
Philip: I live in Colorado, and have spent many hours climbing the mountains here. They put me in my place as a tiny creature in the midst of immensity. I get something like the corrected vision Job got when God appeared in a whirlwind and gave him a nature lesson. “I spoke of things I could not possibly understand,” Job admitted. There’s risk and danger, and when I’m climbing I realize that my tightly regimented life is not so controlled after all. When noon lightning storms roll in, what happens next is up to the lightning.
At the same time, there’s a kind of gratuitous beauty. Even above timberline, you find a carpet of gorgeous, miniature wildflowers that thrive and lavish the Earth with beauty whether anyone notices them or not. I feel sorry for people who know only cities. I know their attraction, after spending several decades in Chicago, but I get a different perspective on the world when I escape the concrete and explore the natural world.
When we climb, my wife is the botanist. She studies the wildflowers and has learned to identify them. I seek out the animals: the marmots and tiny pikas that somehow eke out a living among the rocks; the ptarmigan who drop their summer camouflage feathers and magically adorn themselves with white ones as snow falls; the hummingbirds that service those fragile flowers to assure their perpetuation.
Kendra: In this age of misinformation and polarization, what does the church need to do differently to follow Jesus’s call to unity?
Philip: My, what a question. That was Jesus’s last prayer for his followers, in John 17. And look what a mess we’ve made of the recent global pandemic. If ever the world needed to see the Body of Christ represent “the God of all comfort, the Father of compassion.” Sadly, we have brought even more division and dissension. Where do I start?…
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